Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


New Plan to Safeguard New York's Water Supply

With New York facing significant fiscal challenges and concerns about terrorist threats, it may seem like an unusual time for citizens to launch a new campaign to preserve New York City's upstate reservoirs and their watersheds.

Yet that is exactly what is happening. Twenty-one groups, including some of the region's leading environmental and civic organizations, have unveiled a forward-looking plan that envisions expanded programs to safeguard watershed farms and forests and protect the lands that drain into New York's upstate reservoirs from sprawl that generates pollution.

In a recent letter to Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, representatives from the 21 groups noted that, despite progress over the last several years, "far too many acres of watershed lands are not permanently protected, and significant portions of the watershed are confronting intensified threats from haphazard development."

The letter outlined ambitious measures that the authors say are necessary to secure New York City's drinking water supply for future generations. The environmental and civic groups believe that implementation of an enhanced watershed protection plan will not only protect the public health of roughly 9 million water consumers, but will help avoid multi-billion dollar city expenditures for water filtration facilities.

In addition to the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work), the other groups sending the letter are: Audubon New York; Arbor Hill Environmental Justice; Bronx Council on Environmental Quality; City Club of New York; Civitas; Environmental Advocates; Environmental Defense; Federated Conservationists of Westchester County; Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir; Friends of Van Cortland Park; New York League of Conservation Voters; New York Public Interest Research Group; Open Space Institute; Regional Plan Association; Riverkeeper; Scenic Hudson; Trout Unlimited - Croton Chapter; Trust for Public Land; West Harlem Environmental Action; and Westchester Land Trust.


New York City's water supply constitutes what may well be the region's single most important capital asset. The network, which has 19 reservoirs, is composed of three inter-related systems. The oldest, dating back to 1842, is the Croton system, located primarily in Westchester and Putnam counties. Beginning in the early 1900s, construction started on the Catskill and later the Delaware systems. Together, these two systems have six reservoirs, all west of the Hudson River, and send water downstate from as far as 125 miles away.

These 19 reservoirs and the watersheds that feed them supply roughly half of the state's population with more than 1.2 billion gallons of water every day. City water officials accurately describe this remarkable supply, often overlooked by most New Yorkers, as an engineering marvel.

But although New York City water quality still meets state and federal tap water standards, the long-term outlook for this supply remains uncertain, environmental watchdogs believe.

More than 100 sewage plants discharge treated wastewater in streams that flow into city reservoirs (the plants are now being upgraded). Over 110,000 individual septic and other subsurface systems in the watershed system also could pollute the water supply.

Of concern too, say environmental groups and drinking water officials, is stormwater runoff from roads, driveways and other paved surfaces, and from lawns, farms and golf courses. Rainwater picks up contaminants as it washes over these surfaces, and can flush pollutants into watershed streams and reservoirs.

They note that more than half of the 19 reservoirs have been found to be eutrophic, a condition that occasionally leaves green slime, caused by nutrients entering reservoirs from treated sewage and stormwater runoff. Eutrophication can lead to changes in the taste or odor of tap water, and the process to remove it can produce carcinogenic byproducts.


In addition to the public health imperative of keeping contaminants out of our drinking water supply, there are strong economic reasons for watershed protection.

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, water suppliers – in this case New York City -- must filter drinking water from reservoirs unless they can meet all water quality standards and demonstrate a comprehensive watershed protection program, including ownership or control of watershed lands.

A controversial federal court order already requires New York City to filter its East-of-Hudson Croton watershed system. The much larger Catskill and Delaware systems are unfiltered, and New York City has a five-year waiver from having to build filtration facilities for them. But unless watershed safeguards increase, it is quite possible that this system will face a filtration order. Mayor Bloomberg recently estimated the cost of Catskill and Delaware system filtration facilities at $6 billion.

"From both a public health standpoint and to avoid the huge economic burdens of Catskill/Delaware filtration, it is essential that New York State and City continue enhancing and making more robust their watershed protection program in all three reservoir systems," says Natural Resources Defense Council water specialist Robin Marx.


In l997, Governor Pataki, New York City and officials from upstate watershed communities signed an agreement that broke a political logjam and advanced a cooperative upstate-downstate partnership for watershed protection. Among other things, that program has allowed the city to purchase 40,000 acres of undeveloped watershed lands from willing sellers.

Despite this, though, sprawl development has continued unabated and is racing ahead of state and city efforts to protect watershed wetlands, forests and meadows that are essential to a healthy watershed ecosystem. The trend is most obvious in the east-of-Hudson Croton system reservoirs and the Kensico basin, the 21-group letter warns.

"New subdivisions, corporate and business 'parks' and even strip shopping developments have been transforming the East-of-Hudson watershed for years," the environmental and civic groups write. They note that Putnam County is the fastest growing part of the state, with a 69 percent population increase between 1970 and 2000.

Around the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County, development pressures have mounted. Planned expansion of corporate headquarters, new subdivisions and runway expansion at Westchester Airport are the kinds of projects that, according to watershed watchdogs, threaten water quality in the reservoir that serves as the funnel for the entire Catskill and Delaware system.

While the West-of-Hudson watersheds have seen less dramatic changes so far, the threats to that mostly rural watershed area are also intensifying. Moving ahead in 2003 is the largest Catskills development project in memory -- the "Belleayre Resort," a mega-project with two 18 hole golf courses, two large hotels, hundreds of condominium and time-share units and related commercial facilities, proposed for 600 mountainside acres in Ulster and Delaware counties. Three new gambling casinos, to be built in Ulster and Sullivan counties, also could affect growth and land-use in the nearby watershed areas.


The 21 environmental and civic groups that outlined an enhanced watershed protection program in their recent letter to the governor and the mayor envision three major areas for stepped up activities.

First, the groups are urging a continuation and enhancement of the city's existing watershed land acquisition program. Their proposal calls for the city to purchase an additional 80,000 acres of watershed lands over the next 10 years by the city from willing sellers. This proposal would essentially continue the 8,000 acres-a-year pace that the city has been achieving since l997.

Second, the proposal envisions a greatly expanded program to acquire conservation easements on farms and forests in the watershed. These easements allow landowners to sell the development rights to their property, while providing the owners with continuing rights to live on, farm or harvest, and sell (but not develop) their parcels. The easements would be held in perpetuity by the city, state or land trust to protect the land.

Such easement programs also offer significant water quality benefits since they can preserve existing watershed land uses at roughly 60 percent of the cost of buying the properties outright. The environmental and civic group letter proposes that a combination of federal, state and city funds be utilized to secure 150,000 acres of farm and forest easements over the next decade.

Third, the 21 groups call upon the governor, the state legislature and local watershed communities to adopt and implement new strategies to advance "smart growth" and prevent haphazard development on Catskill, Delaware and Croton system watershed lands.

"There is no single greater threat to our way of life in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads congested, and our open space disappear," said New Jersey's Governor James E. McGreevey in a remarkable discussion of sprawl and its adverse impacts, part of his recent 2003 State of the State address.

New Jersey, like Maryland, Oregon and a handful of other states, has been moving aggressively to protect their environment from the consequences of haphazard development. New York's water quality activists believe that similar actions are needed here.

To accomplish this, they propose ending highway expansions, as well as subsidies and tax breaks for developers seeking to build on sensitive watershed lands. Instead growth should be channeled into existing cities, towns and watershed hamlets. Also being proposed is state legislation that would give localities the option of placing a small surcharge on real estate transfers, with the proceeds being used to preserve open space in their communities.


According to New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Christopher Ward, the risk to New York City's water supply from a terrorist attack is small. The huge volume of water in the city's 19 reservoirs makes it extremely unlikely that toxins could be added to the water supply in sufficient quantity to harm the public without the perpetrators being detected, Ward and other environmental officials maintain. And city and state agencies have recently stepped up efforts to safeguard reservoir dams and other water system infrastructure from attack.

But the 21 environmental and civic groups who wrote to the governor and mayor remain concerned about the long-term, insidious threat to our reservoir network from ill-advised watershed development and the pollution it generates. Although far less dramatic than the threat of terrorism, this issue deserves recognition by all who care about the future of our city.

If Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and New York's other top elected officials take further steps to safeguard New York's priceless and irreplaceable watershed landscape in 2003, they will insure a lasting legacy that benefits the health, economy and public safety of New Yorkers for the remainder of the 21st century.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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